Conditioning For Mixed Martial Arts
Elite mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters are among the fittest, most powerful athletes in the world. To reach this level takes years of dedicated training and focus, not only on the skills necessary for competition but also to reach world class physical condition. This article will look at some of the simple and effective ways of improving your fitness for combat sports, allowing you to stay strong and explosive all the way to the final bell.
If you are a novice MMA athlete your first priority should be to develop a good base of general strength and aerobic endurance. Once you have done this you can gradually make your training more specific by using power endurance modalities or skills training under fatigue. We will discuss these more later on but first let’s look at some ways you can build your strength and conditioning foundation.
For a lot of athletes, especially in MMA where there is such a high focus on technical training, simply getting stronger is enough to dramatically improve your performance. By increasing your maximal strength you will also increase your relative strength and your rate of force development. A mantra that we use a lot at Performance Ground is “train movements not muscles”, simply put you should disregard exercises that isolate individual muscles and focus on compound, multi-joint movements. The major movements that you should focus on are below along with an example exercise for each.
- Squat (back squat)
- Lunge (walking lunges)
- Hinge (Romanian deadlift)
- Push (military press)
- Pull (chin ups)
- Brace (plank)
- Rotate (wood-choppers)
If you do no strength training at the moment then include two sessions per week that include all of these movements and you will get dramatically stronger very quickly.
Preparing the body’s energy systems for competition uses very similar principles to developing your strength foundation. First and foremost you should prioritise your aerobic endurance capacity, just like maximal strength, the greater your aerobic conditioning the more scope you have to develop your high intensity conditioning and the more stamina you will have later in the fight. However before you take yourself off for a long slow “boxer’s jog” bear in mind that there are more effective ways of improving your aerobic capacity.
Just like testing your one-repetition max (1RM) for max strength you should discover your maximal aerobic speed (MAS) as a marker of your aerobic capacity and use this to plan your conditioning sessions. It is outside the scope of this article to go into the detail of how to conduct a MAS test but for more information download our freebie. Because it conditions both the upper and lower body a rowing ergo is a great tool for MAS testing and for improving your general conditioning. Intervals of 30 seconds of work with 30 seconds rest at 100% of your MAS will improve your aerobic capacity very quickly. Remember to gradually build up the interval durations over time so that eventually they are the same duration as a fighting round.
Now that you have developed a good strength and conditioning foundation you have earned the right to make your training more sports specific. To prepare for MMA you should spend time improving your power endurance which will enable you to strike, takedown and grapple at a high intensity even at the end of the fight. A simple but effective method of doing this is using explosive exercises such as power cleans, jump squats or sled pushes with relatively high set and rep ranges. 5 sets of 5 reps with a 2-minute rest interval is a good example of programming for power endurance. You can increase the intensity of these sessions by including mobility exercises during your rest interval, this will keep the heart-rate high and further challenge your levels of conditioning.
As you advance in your training you should introduce some sessions that focus on your performance under fatigue. Sparring sessions performed alongside some simple metabolic conditioning exercises such as burpees or sprawls are a great way of challenging your ability to execute fighting skills under fatigue. A lot of MMA athletes and coaches begin their strength and conditioning training at this end of the spectrum where the sessions are very specific. But unless you are already an advanced athlete it is more important to focus on a general base of strength and fitness to accompany the technical training that you are already doing during the week. You should make sure that this foundation is strong before you build upon it with more MMA-specific strength and conditioning training.
The fitness culture in combat sports is “more is better”, but remember that good quality movement and conditioning is the key to your success. If you are a long way out from a competitive fight then take the time to build an unshakeable strength and conditioning foundation on which to build your athleticism.